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Home / Economy / The turning point that was 1991, in five charts

Since its independence in 1947, India has made progress in every dimension. And yet, given the long arc of change for developing nations, it remains a work in progress. 1947 was a seminal moment in the country’s history. 1991 was another. The forces of change unleashed by the opening of the economy left their imprint deep and wide. As we see below, these forces served to change the course of some dimensions. In other dimensions, they lifted the trajectories of progress in a significant way.

Gender Balance

Even before independence, India’s gender balance had been worsening. The sex ratio—females per 1,000 male population—had declined from 972 in 1901 to 945 in 1941, according to government data. Post-independence, the decline continued. The census of 1991 registered a dismal sex ratio of 926, which poorly concealed the practices of killing baby girls and aborting female foetuses. Only Kerala had a sex ratio above 1,000. At the other extreme was a state like Bihar, whose sex ratio had regressed from 1,000 in 1951 to 907 in 1991.

The opening of the economy in 1991 saw more women enter schools, colleges, and shop-floors. In 1994, India passed a law that banned prenatal sex determination, though its implementation has been inconsistent. Meanwhile, India’s sex ratio has gradually improved, to a projected 948 in 2021. Further, only four states have seen their sex ratio fall between 1991 and 2011: Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Return to Private

‘Gross capital formation’ is a measure of creation of assets that lead to future growth. Generally, the higher the capital formation in an economy, the greater its growth. In 1950-51, the private sector was leading capital formation in India, outnumbering the public sector by a multiple of about 3. That soon changed. India needed big additions to its basic infrastructure—roads, power plants, agriculture, train tracks, schools, hospitals, etc. It put the public sector in the centre of this building. By 1958-59, the public sector began to match the private sector in capital formation. That continued as India nationalized several sectors, including banks, insurance and mining. Post 1991, the order flipped again. As India loosened controls on sector after sector, private enterprise came into its own. Since then, capital formation by the private sector has always outstripped that by the public sector, generally by 2-4 times.

Plugging In

Liberalisation increased private presence in all spheres. It also created economic imperatives and raised consumer expectations. A fundamental area where this was seen was in electricity demand and supply. In urban areas, long power cuts were routine. In rural India, about 470,000 of 634,000 villages were declared to be electrified in 1990. But this definition was about bringing electricity to a village, not regular supply.

A measure of the amount of supply to households is the per capita availability of electricity for domestic use. This has risen 6-fold since 1991 and is at its highest levels now. Reforms initiated in the latter half of the 1990s have shaped this. These covered strengthening the financial position of state-owned power distribution companies, reducing transmission and distribution losses, adding more capacity, and selective privatisation. This sweep has even touched rural areas. The government declared all villages to be electrified in 2018. Supply, though far from complete, is increasing.

Highways to Growth

In the 10 years after 1990-91, India added twice the length of national highways as it did in the preceding 40 years. It was during this decade that the trickle down benefits of good roads were first sought to be harnessed in a big way. A prominent piece of India’s national highway drive, the Golden Quadrilateral, was conceived in 1999 and launched in 2001. This project connected the four main cities located on four corners of India, and a host of others en route, through 4-6 lane highways spanning 5,800 km in length.

That underlying philosophy of highways as an economic multiplier has continued. The pace of addition in national highways has been maintained since. More highways boosted goods movement via road. The number of goods vehicles have increased from 1.3 million in 1991 to 13.7 million in 2017-18. And the total number of registered vehicles has increased 14-fold after liberalization.

Sporting Success

Basking in its new found freedom, India hosted the first Asian Games in 1951. It was a small affair, featuring 11 countries and 12 sports (the 2018 edition had 45 countries and 40 sports). India finished second in the medals tally. As the Games became more popular, India’s rank slipped, barring 1982, when it played host for the second time. The bottom came in 1990, when India finished 11th, with 23 medals across 10 sports.


India has risen from the lows of the 1990s. This is a period that saw cable TV come to India and fuel the rise of cricket. In time and with much effort, greater finances, private interest, better infrastructure trickled down to other sports. At the Asian Games, India has graduated from a band of 20-40 medals to 50-70 medals. There is also greater sporting diversification in India’s medals portfolio. In the 2018 Games, India scooped its biggest haul of 70 medals, spread across 18 sports. Still, many gains remain to be made.

www.howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data



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